When Groceries Become Fun

It has been some time since my last post about grocery shopping on a budget but I am still approached by people on a regular basis that marvel at how it works. Look, if I had teenagers in the house then undoubtedly our budget would have to be much bigger. Our budget for weekly groceries has been, and continues to be, $52.50. With my wife and two kids(8 and 6) this is a manageable number. As a family our income has not changed substantially in the last couple years so why should our budget change…even though costs are definitely on the rise.(Don’t get me started about inflation!)

Those people who areAldi Receipt 11-17-12 masters of coupon clipping impress the heck out of me. I know my limitations, and my attention span could not possibly put the dedication necessary for that kind of hobby. That and, in the end, you have eat what you get.

Nutritional poverty is withholding proper levels of nutrition from your body in lieu of something filling but devoid of significant positive benefit for your continued existence. The old axiom garbage in, garbage out comes to mind. I believe a lot of people suffer from nutritional poverty which has NOTHING to do with financial poverty because it can claim people from all levels of financial means. In the end it’s about making choices to keep your body functioning properly. FYI, I am not a food ogre, demanding strict adherence to the best of the best. I’m more realistic than that.

The best way for me to show you how to save is to break down our family’s grocery bill and explain the choices:

ALDI 10-17-12

The first receipt is from Aldi, a chain of stores that’s reportedly owned by a relative of the owner of Trader Joe’s. I really don’t care who owns it. It’s not owned by Walmart so I don’t really care.

Fresh veggies and fruit, when the farmers market is closed for the season, is an expensive but necessary piece of nutrition. Aldi is my go to place when I can’t buy fresh from a produce stand because they consistently deliver fruits and veg well below the prices we see at the local big box grocery stores. Love that!My “chicken scratch” notes on the receipt mark the qty/volume of items since it’s not itemized.

- Milk was almost a whole $1 cheaper here than in the other main grocery store in St Cloud, Cash Wise.

- Flour Tortillas…well, I’ve got a pretty good recipe for that that is easy to make and uses whole wheat for added dietary fiber but in a pinch when there is no time and you need food right away it’s good to have some in the freezer.

- Fuji Apples, Navel Oranges – Buying in a pre-portioned sack will usually save you some coin in the end and it won’t kill you to look through the sacks to find one that has less blemishes. Bruised apples make great apple pies and crisps anyway so maybe it’s not such a bad thing. I paid $1.10/# for apples and $1.16/# for oranges.

- Strawberry Toaster Pastries and Quick Bread – BUSTED! My son likes his toaster pastries in the morning, especially when he is feeling a little undecided. I have see recipes for this but have not yet tried one yet. Sometime. For the mean time $1.89 for 12 is about .20 more than the 6 count at the other store. No brainer. The quick bread was Apple Cinnamon Swirl for $1.49. Even I have lazy moments in the kitchen. This kind of purchase is a rarity.

- Tomatoes, Pears, and Baking Soda – Staple ingredients to a whole hold or homemade delights. If you have no options of course you’ll pick canned tomatoes and pears.

In the end, 10 times for just under $20 is not great but worth the stop since it trimmed about $5.10 off the cost of these items if they had be bought at the big box store.

Cashwise Receipt 10-17-12 Normally I would include a trip to the Country Hearth bread store on the east side but we didn’t really need bread this week as the freezer was still pretty full. Also skipped this week was Gopher Bargain Center. That place is like the general store of scratch and dent merchandise but has a wide selection of harder to find specialty items as reduced prices.

CASHWISE 10-17-12

- Check out the fact that, of the 21 items, 13 were on sale or reduced pricing. That is how you make it on a budget. Buy what you can with what you have even if it’s not on the meal plan for the next couple weeks. If it’ll keep then save it.

-  Pizza crusts – I’ve been trying our my own crust recipes lately but it’s nice to have one, or in this case two, in the event you want to make a calzoneon short notice. 50 cents is nothing to sneer at since the yeast and flour to make it yourself will likely set you back that much anyway.

- Reduced Sodium Taco Seasoning, Baked Beans – Staple meal ingredients. Beans were of course on sale.

- Frozen Turkey – Don’t bother lecturing me about what’s in ground turkey. I know, but it’s much healthier and cheaper alternative to other ground animal products and…I don’t eat beef.

- Reduce Pork? – If I tell you that Cashwise puts all their close to “sell by” meats on sale on Wednesday please don’t rush there and scoop my deals. Actually, this day appears to be a company wide sale bonanza. We’ve gotten ground turkey, pork, chicken, ribs, and even BACON in the”special cooler. Take it home and freeze it but just get there early enough in the morning because by noon it’s usually picked clean except the odd cow tongue or pig’s foot. Eeew.

Produce – Well, sometimes you have to buy at a regular price so the curly haired college kid who works in the produce department can keep his job. Go Huskies! (Local college team in case you were wondering)

Greek Yogurt – Yogurt is so hard to find without aspartame that I almost gave up on it all together. I want fatted yogurt with all the real sugar and fruits in it but that is a rare animal indeed. Instead Cashwise has recently launched their own house label yogurt called Nostimo. For three of the last four weeks it has been on sale and it has no aspartame. Joy!

BAKERY! – If you don’t know there is a day old rack of bread in your grocery store then you better find it and the day of the week they fill it. All manner of artisan breads and pastries can be found on the day old rack at Cashwise. Last week it was Siebenfelder this week a long loaf of French bread. That is so worth $1.25. If you get there soon you might still be able to score the cinnamon whirl loaf covered in frosting I left for you.

Deli – Buying meat from the deli is fresher, less preserved than the packaged meats, and when on sale is at the same price or less. This week was kind of a let down as the big item was deli sliced cheeses. Still, a pound of Hormel(water added…sigh) Ham was less than $3/pd so I soaked my sorrow in a half pound of sliced hard salami. That makes missing out on such delights as honey smoked turkey bearable.

There ya go. A week in the life of our family’s shopping. With a total of 31 items at $52.96, I came in at 46 cents over budget but last week we were under so it all comes out in the end. Incidentally my grocery list had only 12 items in the beginning. Depending on the response, maybe this will be a recurring entry or might end up in someone’s high school research report. That is…if they ever make something as important as Home Ec classes a requirement again in school.

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Trimming the Fat in Grocery Shopping

The other night I got into a brief conversation about the cost of buying groceries for our family of four with a co-worker. His family was the same size so I figured that the relative costs were probably pretty close to the same. (I know, it’s egocentric of me to think everyone shops like me.) I said to him that our weekly grocery expenses came to around $50. I thought his jaw was going to hit the floor. He exclaimed, “What! 50? Only 50?” He went on to say he spends $150 a week in groceries. Then it was my turn to be shocked. That’s three times what we spend! How can that be?

Unsatisfied with the small sampling of one person I looked up a chart online from the USDA that had average food costs per person and for families from August 2007. I was stunned to find out that the average food cost for a family of our size was $109.50 to $125.50 a week. Amazing!

Naturally, and still with a little doubt as to the results, I had to post my question on Facebook. This article is a direct result of the shock a couple of my friends had after finding out how “little” we spent on food each week.

I’ve always LOVED grocery shopping. Ask my wife, I get giddy with excitement when I can score a big discount on our grocery bill. A 50% discount is a rare but great shopping trip. When I was a college student back in the early 90’s I had a weekly budget between $12 and $15 for groceries and I ate better than most. I’ve learned a lot about how to shop and live since then.

This is not a “How to walk away from the grocery store with $100 in groceries for only pennies” article. This is more of a “Sensible Guidelines for Shopping list” using the same rules I use every week. If this list helps reduce your grocery expenses, FANTASTIC! Then you have more money to pay off debts, donate to a worthy cause, or spend on your kids. That would be “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” for me.

Rules to grocery engagement:

  1. Set a weekly budget that you can stick with – I would always bring my grocery list on a sheet of paper and write down the prices next to the item as I grabbed it off the shelf. Sometimes I still do. When you reach your budget limit, put back what you can live without and stick to the necessities. The other option is go to in and set a goal under what you budgeted so if you find some great special you’ll have room to get it without sacrificing something else on your list. Case in point, our budget is $52.50 a week but I often shoot for under $50 so we have a little extra room to fudge on a special treat now and again.

  2. Specials and Quantity – If you find a special via coupon or otherwise that is really good, buy more than one if the special allows you to. If you can afford it in your budget, get the maximum as long as it’s not perishable. There is no telling when that item is going back on sale so why buy only one now and pay full price later for one more? That’s just silly.

  3. Bread Stores – These are the stores setup by commercial bakeries. These companies always make overruns and defective loaves(with little holes in the middle). Sometimes they are close to the sell by date. You can easily get two to four times the value for your dollar by buying your bread there instead of the grocery store. This is especially true if you like the good 12 Grain and other hearty breads. Freeze what you wont eat that week to extend freshness.

  4. Different Stores, Different Selection – Some stores have cheaper fruits or veg, some have cheaper meat, and others are better for box of canned goods. Know your market and NEVER buy all in one store unless you have no other choices. We’ve got a store that can’t be beat for fruit in our area, so where do I go when fruits are in season? You guessed it…which is a great segway to the next tip.

  5. Buy Fruits and Veg in season – You may want strawberries out of season but you will pay a premium for that privilege. There are always deals for things when they are in season and/or locally grown. Buy, prep, and freeze fruits and veg for later use if you can’t use it right away. It also gives you seasons to your dishes which will help keep your pallet from boredom.

  6. Name brands – You know why name brand items are so much more? Is it because they spend more on quality? No, it’s the cost of advertising that makes them charge more. Save your money and buy generic or off brand items when that is an option. They make generics for almost everything on the shelf that is not on the outer perimeter of the store and it tastes virtually the same.

  7. Special Discounts – Most stores will put discontinued items or things close to the sell by date in a special place. The store we do a lot of shopping at puts discontinued items in grocery carts in the middle of the store and has a special cooler for fresh meat that they need to sell. It’s usually quite good yet(Use your eyes though) and can be substantially cheaper. 50% or more off it worth looking for.

  8. Gardening is Great – Have space and love fresh produce? Plant a garden. For the price of some seeds and a little bit of your time you can easily produce more than you can eat. Learn how to can food and process it for later. I can a lot! It doesn’t take a lot of time and the food can be stored for years. We haven’t spent a dime on jelly in 10 years because I make apple jelly and apple butter enough to last 10 families. Gardening also gives you the self satisfaction of producing something for you or your family. Self-sufficiency is hot topic right now anyway.

  9. Coupons vs Value – Sometimes a coupon is not worth the paper it’s printed on. If you have to buy something you would never buy just to save 25 cents, then consider the net cost as a loss. “But…Mr Chad, I SAVED 25 cents on this widget.” No, you spent $1.50 for the widget. It just cost you less than the other guy. Also, if you can buy a generic variety of the same product for cheaper than you can with a coupon, it’s also not worth it.

  10. Nothing Beats Home Cooking – Ok, so you have a busy life style. That does not mean you can’t have 10 to 15 easy meals ready in 15 minutes for days when you don’t have the time for an hour of cooking. The biggest cost vs value difference is in prepared meals. You can make “from scratch” meals for a whole lot less than buying the frozen TV dinner equivalent. Here’s the shocker…homemade meals taste better. Think back to when you were a kid and what special meal comes to mind? For me it’s my mom’s lasagna. It wasn’t Stoeffers or Lean Cuisine…it was MOM’s. More than likely you have a memory just like this and it doesn’t involve something from the freezer section.

There! Now you have ten rules to help you trim the fat from your grocery expenses. You might even find with the money you save you can make the world around you a better place. Enjoy.

 

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Limitations have never been attractive to me

During a short Facebook chat with my good friend, Tony, I think we may have found another contributor to the blog in restaurant reviews. I’m sure there will be format changes but more importantly the stagnant existence of this blog will hopefully change.

On the same subject of change, I am not happy with my limitations of blog templates through our web host 1&1. There really is not a lot of variety in templates and no real way to change the core visuals or add any widgets. The templates are WordPress based but from  within the site’s controls we are very limited. Therefore I guess we should make a change.

This last spring I setup a Blogger site so we could have live chat to manage our remote players for the KVSC 50 Hour Trivia Marathon, which is not an option on our 1&1 hosting package, and was blown away by our options. If that was available there, what other blog sites would offer more options? Short of actual coding here people because I have never been all that committed to the software tech of things. The last official software class I took was Pascal in my senior year of High School in 1991. It was a dead end language even then.

I am curious where else to look so let me know if you think you have a place I can redirect SCBackroads.com to and build something anew. Thanks.

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Mucking out the Main Coop(aka Chickens Make a Lot of IT)

The end products we hope from our flock are eggs but the raising of chickens provides other things as well. No, I am not referring to anything like meat or even pest control as they walk around the yard eating anything they can find that resembles a bug. I am referring to “it” and they make a lot of..errr…well, it. It is manure.

Dirty Coop

It is not an issue in the coop during the summer months as they spend the lion share of their days outside in the chicken yard or wandering around the property. During the winter months, though they are encouraged to go outside, they usually prefer to spend most of their time huddled in the coops.I don’t blame them as the only source of warmth besides the infra-red light on the exceptionally cold days is that of their sisters and brothers in the coop with them. This usually allows for a great build-up of it. If not properly managed, the buildup inside the coop can be significant.

Think of this as a short photo tour of the cleaning process we go through throughout the year. People seem to be curious about what goes on through our Facebook Fan Page called Chad’s Eggs so consider this an extension of that.

Ready(?) for Cleaning

Every hobby has an unpleasant side to it. Mucking out the coop is one of the most unpleasant experiences aside from culling the flock or extracting passed or passing birds. Though a little manure on the floor can actually be a good insulator to the wood floor, it still needs to be removed regularly. What happens is that the top layer of the manure will dry and will be a serviceable walking surface for the birds but underneath that top layer is a decomposing layer of gas producing filth. As soon as you break through that layer you are in for a fowl experience. Depending on how wet the packed manure is will determine how bad the smell will be. Also, I have been advised by a couple doctors that it is inadvisable to clean out the coop without wearing a filtering face mask to breathe though as the airborne contaminants can cause illness in the lunch. Rather than challenge their knowledge base by looking it up, I got ahead and comply. Even though it is probably a foregone conclusion,never go in there wearing anything you don’t immediately intend to wash after you are done. Caked on manure will dry over time but is wholly unsanitary to bring into your home. Yes, that is a Minnesota Jaycees hat on my head…if my head was going to be in manure I would definitely not be wearing it.

This next picture is intended to show the color difference between the top crust and the rest of the build-up. It is almost like sandstone in this respect with each layer piling on top of previous layer. The bottom layer is almost always hay/straw or wood shavings which is clean bedding placed on the floor.

Thick manure

This stuff will make some fantastic  fertilizer by spring and I encourage everyone to get some, especially if you are in an area with very sandy soil or excellent drainage. Only use lightly in a more clay based ground otherwise you may burn your plants off. Too much of a good thing is still too much. Where we live it’s pretty sandy soil and we have never burned our garden out even with putting copious amounts of manure yearly in the garden. Given the sandy nature of the ground it becomes necessary to make sure you are adding enough nutrients to the soul to ensure your plants will have enough to grow big and strong.

It’d a good thing our operation isn’t any bigger than it is (51 hens) because I have to hand carry an five gallon garbage can of manure out over and over again. There’s probably a better way to it but this is how I’ve been doing it since I started with my first twelve partridge cochins back in 2002. It seemed a lot easier back then. Of course I cleaned out the coop weekly during the first couple years.

Clean FloorAs stated previously, depending on the flock I usually use hay/straw on the floor as a start. Not only does it give the chickens something to pick through that is vegetable based but it also harbors bugs and seeds that they can eat to supplement their diet. For bedding in the nest boxes I’ve found that pine or cedar shavings work best for our flock of gold stars but the newer flock of black sex linked(BSL) hens tend to prefer they hay/straw for bedding over the shavings. It will be interesting when we consolidate the two flocks into the same larger coop because they will occupy the same nesting boxes. That is a project for later this winter.

In the end, we have a clean floor and clean nest boxes. The project is ongoing so the roost platform over the nesting boxes still needs work and that horrible splattering effect under the nest boxes will need to be addresses. Nothing is every really clean in the chicken coop for more than a couple minutes before a bird will come along and decide it’s a good place to leave some droppings, then another one will step in it and spread it around the coop.

Just to show everyone how much manure can be generated by twenty-four birds, I have included as a finale the pile created by the experience. Yep, that whole pile is what was extracted from that one coop. After it ages and compresses that pile will be enough for our garden for a whole year. It is the only fertilizer we use in our organically farmed garden. Want some? Bring a bucket in the spring or find a chicken farmer near you.

Fresh Manure Pile

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I am The Chicken Tender

While soul searching for something more to write about it is always good to go back to the things you know. After all, what kind of authority on any subject are we if we write about things we don’t know. It’s as if the world has gone toward the web in order to report on things that they only seem to know a little about and make up the rest.

Gold Star hen

We moved to this Sherburne County back road the week of the tragedy of 9/11. Quite quickly upon arrival I proclaimed that I wanted to raise chickens. While I was not necessarily ridiculed by my friends and family, they probably though this was another one of my “hair brained” ideas. Incidentally, I think of it as divine creative inspiration but other do not. That next summer we built the 12×16 shed that was needed for storage and more importantly a coop.That was the beginning of one of my most peaceful hobbies and flash point that ignited my desire for a more self-sufficient lifestyle.

Fast forward to January 2011. Now it’s over eight years into this “hobby”, which pays for itself and provides us and our extended family all the eggs they need.  It also has provided us with a little side business when eggs are available that goes back into providing our chickens with food, heat in the winter, and a great home… oh, and it gives me something to do that brings me peace. That will suffice for a prologue as I share our experiences and thoughts about our agrarian lifestyle.

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Raising Kids and Chickens

Here is it 2011 and therefore it must be time to reflect on the last year and create a plan for the new year. Well, at any rate that is what people tend to do around this time of year so why not me….why not Sherburne County Backroads? After all there has to be some purpose to this blog and seeing as how I have not collected any income for the last two years there’s not enough to justify a blog about eating out.

The year of 2010 was a year of recovery for me. It was also a year that saw me become a much better father and husband. It was a year the culminated in my release from the bonds of business partnership and my ultimate battle with personal bankruptcy.(I have no qualms about sharing this personal battle freely on the internet with billions of potential readers.) It was a year, take it for all in all, I am thankful to have experienced and am ready to move on to something new.

I will be the first to say that in the not too distant past I did not live up to my own expectations as a parent. I was grumpy a lot. More than I needed to be for certain. The mountain of stress bore down upon my shoulders like a can crusher and rather than find a suitable outlet for my pent up frustrations at work I brought it home. My wife and kids were never in any harm of physical violence but that did not mean they probably wondered how little it would take before I would bark at them for some minor infraction or perceived one. Maybe I am making more of this than is due but in hindsight this is my perception.

By the time January came around I was spent and just glad I never had to see my ex-partner on a daily basis. It was time to heal. It was time to reconnect with my family on a very loving personal way. They definitely deserved it. One of the first things to go was daycare. Yes, it is one thing to say you are a stay at home dad and it’s another thing all together when you remove that safety net and actually spend all your time with your kids. Well, one of them anyway. The other child was gliding through Kindergarten and came home by the middle of the afternoon. This gave me the opportunity to reconnect with my kids in a way I had never imagine. Wait…reconnect? Let’s just call it “connecting” because, with the exception of my oldest child when he was a baby, I have been more or less disconnected and more consumed in what I did outside the home than in it. It’s sad to say but it’s true.

I love my kids. We have planted a garden together. They helped do everything from planting to weed picking and watering and to eventual harvesting. We played…a lot. We went to parks, shopping, exploring, and cuddling. This helped me to really grow in how I valued their closeness to me. It’s pretty incredible. At first I was almost ashamed of the title “stay at home dad” but the more people I told it to the more I was realized it was an important job. People would say, “That’s great!” or “It’s the most important job a parent can have.” As I grew in appreciation of the time we have together the more it became pleasing to me. The stigma I placed on myself being the man of the house and that I had to be the wage-earner slowly dissipated.

While I could have probably done with a little counseling, I battled through my own sense of failure over the end of the business I founded but owned very little of in the end.  The unfortunate by-product was my need to declare bankruptcy. This I will delve more deeply into in my forthcoming series entitled Confessions of a Recovering Businessman.(working title so if you have a book of the same name don’t sue me. heh.) My wife Robin’s patience was tested for certain as I fought with myself over what I needed to do but was too scared to deal with. Thanks to help from both my parents and in-law, and of course Robin’s support, I finally brought myself to completing the painful process of tallying up my debts and, with the help of a lawyer, filing chapter 7 at the end of August. By the end of November the lion share of my debts were gone and with that a great burden upon my psyche. I am thankful for having such a wonderful cast of friends and family that has helped me through it.

Ok, now what? Well, I have come to love my life. I love spending time with my children and focusing my positive energies on our home. Despite this we as a family need me to make some money. The salary of a teacher is modest but it is painfully clear we need a little more. We have rearrange priorities, squeezed budgets, and lived credit free(over 2 years now). We follow a budget and the principles of Dave Ramsey. So, for 2011 I will try as I might to peaceably marry my desire to be a stay at home dad with the need to work around our families schedule. I am ready to work and know I have so much to offer an employer but the trick is getting them to notice. Come on, 2011! I am ready for you after this.

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Taking Time to Talk

Today I was outside in the yard just tending to the chickens and putting kids toys away when I noticed an older couple down by our rather prodigious patch of pampas grass by the pond. This is not necessarily all that uncommon. This time of year people come from all over the area to take clippings or dig some up because it’s very beautiful to see.

 

I had just finished filling the water feeder but, rather than bringing it directly to my thirsty flock, I decided to be friendly and let them know they could clip some if they wanted. The quiet, yet friendly, couple were taking pictures each with their own digital camera.

 

The gentleman had said they lived down the road a bit and had seen it for a few years now. This morning they decided today was the day they were going to stop and take some pictures of the pampas grass.

 

After some light conversing about what I did for a living…which is tending my children at the moment… and whether that bridge was ever going to be built across the river, the man asked if I had any children. Indeed I did and I told him my daughter was going to be getting off the bus any minute. He then offered to give her a book.

 

To be honest, when I heard that I was a little apprehensive. Was this another proselytizer selling religion at my door? Just then the bus was coming down the road to our driveway. I excused myself and ran to where the bus driver could see me so they would let her off. I gave her a big bear hug as I do every time she gets off the bus. It’s one of my daily pleasures.

 

Looking back to where the couple was down in the tall grass by the pampas patch, I noticed they were gone. From around a tree down by the road, the older gentleman was walking our way. He said thanks for the conversation and handed Genevieve a book. He then told us it’s a story told from the perspective of the snowmobile. The snowmobile? Interesting.

 

He gave me a handshake and said his goodbye. Remembering that he told me his name earlier I said, “Goodbye, Walt. And thank you for the book.” He walked back to his pickup where his wife was waiting and left.

 

I finished up with the chickens and came in with Genevieve. Upon asking she handed me the book so I could look at it. As it turns out, Walt wrote the book. It’s titled “The Adventures of Little Lady” and it chronicles an adventure he took at a much younger age to the North Pole. In fact, it was April 19th, 1968 to be exact and the first ever snowmobile expedition to the highest point on our planet. Wow.

 

The point to this story is not that that Genevieve got a book or that this unassuming man named Walt Pederson had actually accomplished that great feat 5 years and 6 days before I was born. What is important in this world is that we take to opportunity every day to talk to someone you don’t know. They might be a great adventurer or just have lived a life termed as “average”. In the end, your life will be enriched from the experience because everyone has a story to tell.

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Review of Ledge Rock Grille – Two Harbors, MN

Ledge Rock Grille

596 Larsmont Way

Two Harbors, MN 55616

This last weekend we spent a day up in the Duluth area scouting out wedding reception locations and dress shopping for my sister-in-law. After leaving Gooseberry Falls, we stopped at a place called  Larsmont Cottages on Lake Superior because their Ledge Rock Grille was a potential reception spot. We of course had to eat there to make sure it was a good fit.

Food: 4

There was an expectation, maybe even an elevated one, that I placed on dining at Ledge Rock. The menu had a more limited selection of choices but it had some really impressive high quality options like Ledge Rock Risotto and Huli Huli Chicken that made my mouth water looking at the menu. They also incorporated a wood fired oven to make fresh flatbreads and local flair like walleye cakes. Was it fair of me to raise the bar for Ledge Rock Grille? It certainly was. If you expect to sell high quality, expect to produce it as well.

When it came to ordering the flatbreads caught my eye. That, and a day of foraging on too many other treats, made it a simple valid option for dinner so I chose the Spicy Chicken Flatbread. When it finally arrived on the table, it looked wonderful. What a presentation! The flatbread was irregular shaped, denoting that it had been rolled out fresh for the meal. Chunks of chicken sat evenly mixed among half sliced cherry tomatoes and were held together with a thin layer of mozzarella and cheddar cheese.

Unfortunately, looks are only the first impression of a good meal because upon tasting it things went downhill.  Firstly, the grilled chicken was nowhere near spicy. In fact, I had someone else sample the chicken just to make sure my taste buds were still working but they reached the same conclusion I did. The flatbread was like eating hardtack, especially as you reached the last inch plus around the edge of the flatbread. My jaw was actually sore after finishing off the meal which is never a good sign. On the upside the cherry tomatoes brought a sweetness to the toppings. Maybe if there was some thin layer of sauce the crust would not have been so hard. It is something definitely needing immediate attention.

Luckily, I was sandwiched between my two kids and was able to partake in one thing I did like, a cheeseburger. What? A cheeseburger? That’s correct. The burger was huge, tender, juicy, and had a great grilled flavor to it. Not bad for the kids menu. If there is a next time I will pose as a child and get that.

Service: 4

A great server can make you overlook a relatively bad plate of food. They are the ones that have the relationship with you, the customer, so their empathy and care can smooth things out if things are not perfect. Our server smiled every once and a while for very short periods but for the most part I had the distinct feeling that she had other things on her mind that were spilling over into her work. When it is game time, you need your game face. She did not appear to be in the game that night.

Another negative to the experience was the time it took to prepare the food. For fine dining it is safe to assume that there will be a 45 minute wait for your meal. Good meals take time to prepare. We arrived after what is normally considered the rush time in dinner service and were seated right away. With about half the restaurant full of patrons at different stages of eating, I kind of expected the meal to arrive a little sooner. It took nearly an hour to get our meals. Of course, unhappiness is precipitated by sitting between a three and a five year old who already finished coloring the entire menu and were nearly two hours removed from their normal dinnertime. It would have been a better meal experience if it were served a little quicker.

Atmosphere: 7

Clean restaurants are important. It says a lot to a patron when you take the time and investment to make your place fresh and inviting. A warm color pallet on the walls, exposed stained wood beams, and a crackling fireplace are very nice to see. Everything looks recently remodeled or built simply because of the architectural  nuances throughout the room. Wine racks line the walls open spaces and are full and ready for customers to pick from.

The only atmospheric downsides are the lack of intimacy and lack of sound dampening that the big open room design naturally suffers from. I thought that if they had some kind of flags or sheer tapestries handing from the overhead beams they might just get over the sound issues. The only problem is that it would not seem to fit the higher class cottage motif throughout the whole complex.

Overall: 5

Overall, I was not impressed with the food or service, and no amount of dolling up the walls is going to replace the quintessential need to produce quality from the kitchen. Their menu looks stellar but the end product was flat, literally and figuratively.

Would I go there again? Not of my own choosing. There are better places to experience on the north shore of Superior.

If you are in the area of the Ledge Rock Grille and want to experience it for yourself, their website posts their menu.

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Digging For Recipe Gems…FOUND ONE!

Cooking for a family is definitely different than for just a couple. Where my spouse is at least game enough to try anything I choose to make, the kids on the other hand are never all that willing to try new things. I remember what it was like as a child. If we only ate what the kids liked then all of us would subsist on pizza, mac’n’cheese, and hot dogs for most meals. Make this your mantra when trying new things because they will love you more as they get older because you tried to expose them to the myriad of tastes that are possible in a world of eating. On to the crux of this post…

Earlier this week my son was lamenting that the chicken he was eating was a little firm and chewy for his tastes. It was cooked on the George Foreman  so it was pseudo grilled. That was understandable. Since there was a good special on chicken at the local grocery store, I had a fair amount of building material to make some more chicken meals. With my cookin’ mojo surging, I dived into some new recipes.

The Crock-Pot is a much maligned object in our house. Some old standards use it but nothing new. There was the focus of my search. It had to be cooked in the Crock-Pot. Slow cooker recipe books are a lot like most other recipe books. They are cluttered with items in the recipe, though intriguing, often do no appear in our kitchen. Who keeps dry tapioca around anyway?…err…wait, I have that. Anyway…on a whim, after paging through a couple books, I opened an old Crock-Pot owners manual from my last slow cooker(Rest it’s foodie soul, as it took a lethal header from the top cabinet down to the wood floor a few years ago). There in it’s nine poultry recipes was my target, Sweet’n’Spicy Glazed Chicken.

(Below is the recipe word for word from the Rival Crock-Pot Stoneware Slow Cooker manual)

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6 – 4oz skinless, boneless chicken breast halves

1 Tbsp Oil

¼ tsp salt

¼ tsp pepper

4 cloves garlic, minced

½ cup brown sugar

1 cup reduced-sodium soy sauce

1 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth

2 Tbsp lemon juice

½ tsp cayenne pepper

¼ cornstarch

½ cup water

 

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add chicken and brown on both sides. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Put in Crock-Pot. In a small bowl, combine remaining ingredients, except cornstarch and water. Pour over chicken. Cover; cook on Low 7 to 9 hours(High: 3 to 4 hours).

When done, remove chicken breasts and turn Crock-Pot to High; cover. Combine cornstarch and water. Stir into liquid in Crock-Pot. Place cover slightly ajar on Crock-Pot. Cook until thickened (15 to 30 minutes). 6 servings.

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Now, as anyone who enjoys cooking knows, a recipe is a guideline for culinary endeavors not a cardinal rule. Here is what I changed from it….

1. Cut the soy sauce down to 1/2 cup and substituted water with the other 1/2 cup. That was A LOT of soy sauce for taste. In fact, the recipe reports a sodium count of a staggering 1879mg as it is written. OUCH!

2. With no chicken broth in the house I took a can of chicken noodle soup and used the chicken broth from it with added water to account for 1 cup.

3. Substituted lime juice for lemon juice. Once again, this was out of necessity since I had one and not the other.

4. Rather than pre-cook the chicken I simply put it in the slow cooker raw. In four hours it was going to cook completely and I was aiming for moistness.

5. After cooking I cut the chicken up into small pieces, poured it into the thickened sauce, and served on a bed of white rice.

When I do this one again… and I will because it was yummy… I will consider adding pineapple and water chestnuts because with the soy sauce it has such an Asian feel and really needs something crunchy and tactile in it. Otherwise I would not change anything else. Very good and easy to make. Thank you, Rival Crock-Pot. I knew I kept that care manual for some reason.

Oh, and yes, I still had a little child insurrection but it was worth it.

 

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Dining Out Does Not a Budget Fit

Hello, everyone. It has been some time since my last food post so it felt like a good thing to do here on a Saturday morning. Not unlike that national trend of people tending to eat more at home rather than dining out, our household is choosing to make its own culinary masterpieces in the kitchen. Add to it the fact that I am still without work, there is just too little room in the budget to fit dining out at new and exciting venues.

Sometimes you just need to get out though so we dined out at a place last night for the first time in a long while that didn’t begin with “Mc” in its name or any of its fast food brethren. And… wait for it… it was at a chain restaurant. GASP! Being as such, I will not post a full review because that breaks with the tradition of this blog and all of my previously held beliefs that chain restaurants are mass produced vacuums of taste and creativity.

We drove into downtown St Cloud with kids in tow to find a place to eat where we could actually sit down without having to control our kids outside the confined din of the kids play area. Our choices, based on what we knew they would eat, were limited to Perkins Family Restaurant and Green Mill. We chose the Green Mill because we had not been there in years and, thanks to the street redesign on Hwy 23, there was no long access to the road Perkins is on going eastbound. Hey, the world is about convenience now and the roads were not convenient for me.

I said I would be brief so let’s review only the outstanding lows and highs that, while pulled center by mediocrity make this meal unremarkable.

First off the Highs:

- The portions are chicken on the kids meal of chicken strips were outrageously huge and high quality non presses meat. Kudos. What my daughter was able to eat only accounted for 1/3 of the meal.

- Our server was smart, very friendly, and had a great sense of table presence.

Now the Lows:

- My Italian sandwich had a plethora of disappointments. It was saturated with Italian dressing for one. I was expecting a tasty pop to the favor of the meat when I chose to have it warm instead of cold. Unfortunately the meat was flat and unremarkable.  Finally the accoutrement you would expect with an Italian sandwich were lacking. There is nothing Italian about a little shredded iceberg lettuce on top and a couple slices of tomato. Sadly, the Italian sandwich at Arby’s had more zest and flavor than this one.

- Ouch! Maybe it’s because I live in central Minnesota but should I pay over $6 for a Guinness when I can buy a 4 pack in the store for $8? This was not surprising but a point to make anyway.

Overall I was not swayed in my belief that chain restaurants are producing anywhere near the kind of quality that stand alone restaurants do. It is the difference between fun and fuel. This was McFuel.

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